The Challenge of Constructing Peace in Colombia

By Rebekah Jones

At the heart of any policy implementation lies a core proposition, a request of change in behavior or thought. As Pressman and Wildavsky highlight, to equate policy enactment with implementation fails to address the often-multilateral steps required to achieve the desired outcome. 

The proposition offered in the 2016 Colombian peace accord is a large one. More so than a negotiation between highly disputed conflict groups and government actors, it proposes a theory of “peace” that to be achieved requires the cooperation of diverse actors. 

One of the most deeply disputed conditions of the peace accord is the granting of impunity and incorporation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) into the nation’s formal political sphere. For many, the FARC represent one of the groups responsible for the massive human rights violations and terror over the country’s past 25 years. The United Nations has attributed that approximately 12 percent of the more than 220,000 deaths in the Colombian conflict to the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), another highly organized guerilla group. However, for others, the group’s formation signifies the mobilization and protection of the country’s most vulnerable populations. Their demobilization can also be viewed as the acceptance of inequality, a major win for the country’s political and economic elite. 

Thus, the resolution carries considerable baggage. The policy essentially requires the Colombian people to universally welcome the FARC into their state. The policy’s “peace” construction almost mandates a nationwide act of forgiveness for the decades of conflict between the FARC and the state’s military and paramilitary forces. Expectedly, this proposition of the peace Accord has been met with extremely mixed reviews. Most all Colombians want peace. Simultaneously, however, many demand a greater recognition and accountability of the FARC for the many acts of violence to which they are accredited. 

Are Colombians denying the prospect of peace? Not likely. It is evident that a single policy cannot change history. It cannot in itself make possible a culture of solidarity necessary to develop true peace in a conflict-prone country like Colombia. Mixed public opinion points to a need of national reconciliation by acknowledgement of all of the people affected by the war.

The proposition of the peace accord requires collective participation and reconciliation of the Colombian people. It also creates a requirement of the state. The FARC guerilla was established in 1964 with the message of anti-imperialism and agrarianism. Their initial call was for a higher quality of life including access to education and workers’ rights. The FARC and other communist groups were repressed by state and state-sponsored actors for their protests and land occupations against the displacement of rural landowners. When leftist groups formed the Unión Patriótica party in an attempt to disarm and participate in elections in the 1980s, hundreds of their candidates were assassinated by the state in the first three years of existence.

Despite the violence and means by which they’ve gone about achieving their goals, the FARC have fought against “land-grabbing” practices that continue to present an intense problem in the country. In theory, the peace accord necessitates government intervention to address the concerns of the FARC by attending to the structural concerns of inequality and displacement present throughout the history of the country. Except it hasn’t. 

Colombia is one of the countries hit heaviest by the mining industry. Many have highlighted the patterns of foreign investment and development on owned land in an effort to build up the country’s economy. This reality is in part why the country is home to the world’s largest internally displaced population. 

Skepticism of the state can be justified considering the incorporation of the FARC in the political sphere. This skepticism can also be justified by considering the failure of the state to address the structural problems that have led to the proliferation of suffering and inequality. These decisions, and its backlash, give reason for any individual to question their loyalty. It gives reason to feel disconnected with the state’s conceptualization of “peace”. Peace, one might ask, for whom?

This disconnect is aggregated when said state fails to defend the concerns of their populations. In their 2014 edited volume, The New Extractivism: A Post-Neoliberal Development Model or Imperialism of the Twenty-First Century? Henry Veltmeyer and James Petras highlight the conflict felt in many Latin American states. Tensions arise when governments adopt a neo-extractivist model economy in an effort to increase internal revenue, which usually requires encroachment upon the land-rights of the often most politically isolated groups in the countries. As a result, states effectively must choose between the financial benefit of foreign interest and poor communities. Veltmeyer and Petras write, “Strategies of accumulation by dispossession are not simply imposed on communities in the periphery by imperial powers, but rather implemented by the ruling classes within the peripheral state.” In this case, one may find a considerable fracture in the relationship between the Colombian state and its vulnerable populations. 

The peace accord claimed to support farmers. For example, in addition to financial support for small farms, it included a crop-substitution plan that aimed to stop the growth of coca plants by giving farmers incentive to plant legal crops. Although many farmers uprooted their livelihood in response to these promises, the funding stopped briefly after President Duque took charge. 

As of now, a mere 23 percent of the peace accord has been implemented in Colombia. The state has thus failed in protecting the rights of the economically disadvantaged, and the violence continues. The Institute for Development and Peace Studies has estimated that at least 700 social leaders and indigenous activists have been murdered in their attempts to mobilize communities against neo-extractivist policies and cocoa production. Although the state has employed security in some cases to guard community leaders, their murders signify a failure to address the systemic issues within the state’s mode of operation. The deaths of activists further erode morale and potential of national unification. In essence, the proposition of safety, unity and peace has not come to pass. 

The unsettling picture of Colombia’s internal conflict continues three years after the implementation of the peace Accord. Current President Ivan Duque has expressed his lack of support for the 2016 Accord, defunding key programs and provisions of the agreement. Although he has indicated his interest in renegotiating the terms, he and the next two Colombian presidents are constrained by the Constitutional Court to implement the deal. Conflict between elite initiatives only further aggravate potential of distrust between Colombians and their state. Whether through renegotiation or proper implementation of the accord, a construction of “peace” that requires immense reconciliation on the part of the civil populations, guerillas, and paramilitaries must be properly understood. This peace proposition will require practical steps of trust-building to lead to the unification of the Colombian people. Only then might we construct a proper peace. 


Rebekah Jones is a senior at Cornell University studying Development Sociology and Public Policy. 

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